I put on another layer of repellant and starblock. Fabio leads me from headquarters,
then jaunts off on his rounds. His arm points me down the path toward the newest find.
What hits me first: the lurid red faces, a striking contrast to their black bodies.
Not like other ones I’ve seen. Am I in the Amazon or outer space?
When I approach, some stay in the back upper corner, legs pulled up tight.
Others hang suspended from the ceiling. All of them stare, black eyes positioned
too close together on their crimson faces. Black hands wet with chunks,
fruit dumped in their trough, orange preferred over yellow or green,
black seeds glistening at the bottom of the cage. What couldn’t grow here?
In a flash, one rushes forward, shakes the metal in rapid rhythm and retreats.
I press up next to wire mesh. A female purses her lips, gives kissing noises,
a greeting. I kiss back, and her kiss grades with excitement into whinnies.
She, the bravest one, sticks her hand through the grate to hold hands with me.
After touching my hand she smells her fingers.
Citronella, DEET, coconut, astrofolia. She rubs the scent around her face and chest,
stretches her arm out through the cage to demand more.
Like the others, she has no thumbs. When she scratches her head or potbelly,
she doesn’t move her fingers, her whole hand jerks back and forth.
She loops her tail out through chain-link fence, circles it around me, pulls me close.
The bare inside of tail tip ridged like a fingerprint, the tail a living rope.
She tries to slip a syringe out of my pocket, but I peel her grip away.
Her black hair coarse and wiry. She retreats, with a bark, to the others.
They smell like themselves, like their kind on any planet, musky sweet, inviting.
The females have long dangling genitals.
One is missing a leg, more damaged than the rest. She makes a strange face,
a wide toothy grin. A fear grimace or a threat. Her face is stuck, a mask.
Fabio, on return from his inspection of other lesser creatures, shakes the males’
cage as hard as he can. Males are broad shouldered, their muscles more defined.
He grabs hands and feet through wire. Together they wrestle, hoot, bang, jump.
He’s even longer armed and legged than they, all sinew and scrap,
but his skin glows white from life on coffee and cigarettes. His mouth agape
in the play face, he spreads his arms open wide toward them.
Their hairs bristle on end at the excitement, the agitation. Their hoots deafening,
motions fluid, ecstatic chaos in the cage. I take a picture with my transmitter.
I mean to beam the image back to earth. But frozen in time he looks horrible, crazy,
a villain. His face a sneer. The light reflects off metal bars so I can hardly see
the others, his playmates, just their entrapment and his raging display. He has lost
the boundary between us and them, despite the cage right there to show him.
Jess Alfaro is a biological anthropologist specializing in behavior, biogeography and conservation of Neotropical monkeys, including Ateles paniscus. She is a beta reader for Susan Ee and has starred as an ‘expert’ for two seasons of Lost Tapes.